Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pecan Tassies

Thanksgiving is a holiday that I’ve tended to be a guest for, rather than the chief cook and hostess. In addition to my many other blessings, I’m always grateful that I don’t have to be in charge of getting the turkey just right: done, but not dry. For the last couple of years, a local friend (and fellow American) has generously included my family in their family’s feast. I bring a dish or two, usually a dessert within my cooking comfort zone. But other than these Thanksgivings, I can’t recall any but the ones spent at my parents’ home. Did I roast a turkey during the years we lived in Trinidad? Strangely, my mind is a complete blank. The childhood rituals are the ones that stick in my memory.

When I was a child, we always celebrated the holiday with my three grandparents – who liked to eat at around 1 pm or 2 pm. My mother had to get up early to wrestle with the turkey, always hoping that it had thawed completely. My paternal grandmother was in charge of the cornbread dressing and the giblet gravy, and I usually helped cut up the fruit (apples, oranges, pineapples, grapes, bananas and maraschino cherries) for the obligatory fruit salad, but everything else fell to my mother’s competent hands.

These were the important elements for me: turkey, rolls and pumpkin pie. I didn’t like cranberry sauce or sweet potatoes until I was an adult, and I can still do without them. I was fairly neutral about the dressing; which was never called stuffing, as we didn’t put it inside the bird. We always had green vegetables, too, and mashed potatoes – but that was everyday stuff. I did like the relish tray, which was carrot sticks, sweet gherkins, black olives and celery stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts. But the essential foods, the ones that I really looked forward to, were the soft buttery rolls that my mother made from scratch, a piece of spicy pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a turkey sandwich (made with a homemade roll) for left-overs.

My grandfather had what was called a “sweet tooth,” and he liked to have his dessert as soon as the plates were cleared. We always had pumpkin pie and fruit salad, and usually an angel food cake for one of my grandmothers. There was almost always a pecan pie. When I was a child, we had Italian Cream Cake and sometimes a mincemeat pie. In order to take best advantage of this selection, it really was preferable to go for a long walk after the turkey dinner . . . and then have a dessert course. Of course, in those days, we had all day to eat. The only other obligation was the Aggie/Longhorn football game* - a ritual known to Texans, if not anyone else. The day would start off cold and hollow-stomached, and end up warm, cozy and completely satiated.

Without extended family, without my native home, without the day off, without football even, I do sometimes wonder if there is any reason to keep celebrating this most American of all holidays. And yet, I can’t give up this beloved ritual.

This year, as a grateful Thanksgiving guest, I’m bringing pecan tassies to the communal table. Tassies are a Southern specialty – and basically they are a miniature pecan pie, with a unique cream cheese/butter crust. As far as I’m concerned, they solve the pecan or pumpkin pie debate. Pecan pie is so rich and stickily sweet that you probably aren’t going to have stomach room for both . . . but a tassie is practically bite-sized. If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, these are also great for Christmas – or any other occasion, actually.

Pecan Tassies

Ingredients for
8 ounces butter
8 ounces cream cheese
a dash of salt
2 1/4 cup flour

Method for
Using a mixer or food processor, blend together the butter and cream cheese.  Then add the flour and salt, and mix until thoroughly blended.  Form the dough into a ball and refrigerate until chilled -- at least half an hour.
When the dough is ready, grease two large mini muffin (or small tart) pans. 
Take a small ball of dough and press it into each tin -- making sure that it adequately covers the sides and bottom of the tin without being too thick.  (This isn't difficult, but it's a bit fiddly and takes a while.  If you have a competent child, get him or her to help.)
When you have completed this process, add the pecan filling.

Ingredients for
2 large eggs, lightly beaten,
1/2 ounce of melted butter
12 ounces of light brown sugar, packed
8 ounces of chopped pecans (or walnuts)

Method for
Mix together the eggs, butter and sugar with a strong metal whisk.  Then add chopped nuts, and stir until evenly incorporated.
Fill the individual uncooked pastry tarts with this mixture, just below the top.  Don't get them too full, or they will overflow when they cook.
Bake in a pre-heated 375F/180C oven for approximately 15 minutes.  My tarts actually took 18 minutes, but start checking at 15.  They should be lightly golden brown.
If stored in a tin, with waxed paper, they will keep well for several days . . . assuming they don't get gobbled up.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

countdown to thanksgiving!

although the danes have not at all caught on to the joys of thanksgiving as the kick-off to the holiday season, i do my part, year after year, in my little corner of denmark, to introduce people to it. i think i always loved it best. it is really what starts the countdown towards christmas. when i lived in the US, i would go get my christmas tree the day after thanksgiving and put it up on saturday, so we could enjoy it for nearly a whole month! i love getting out the ornaments, nestled in their bits of tissue paper, feeling like they're presents in and of themselves, as i remember each one. oh, but i'm getting a bit ahead of myself here....back to thanksgiving.

this year will be no different. we've invited 21 people to partake in our thanksgiving, which will be next saturday, not on real thanksgiving, since the silly danes don't realize it's a holiday. sigh. so my plans and preparations are already underway. i've ordered extra veggies from the folks who bring my organic box (21 people will eat a lot of mashed potatoes), i bought a whole tray of eggs from a lovely old lady who has chickens, i've stocked up on butter and most important of all, i went to my butcher and ordered a fresh turkey big enough to feed 21 people. i pick it up on thursday afternoon and that's when i will put it immediately into its brine. because brining the turkey is the very best way to make what is potentially dry and boring into something luscious and succulent. of course, i learned this from nigella (who else helps us making things luscious and succulent?). it's in her nigella christmas cookbook (one which i highly recommend, tho' if you have feast, you already have many of the recipes).

here's what you do (the photo above is from last year's turkey, mine will go in on thursday afternoon and be roasted on saturday):

brined turkey

approx. 6 liters of water
1 large orange or two smaller, quartered, with the peel left on (i can see above that i took the picture before i added those)
1 250g packet of maldon sea salt (or other quality, flaky salt or 125g ordinary table salt)
1 bouquet garni (i use thyme, rosemary, sage (sage is perfect with turkey)bay leaf)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
4 cloves
2 tablespoons allspice (whole)
2 tablespoons mixed peppercorns
4 star anise
2 tablespoons white mustard seeds
200g sugar
2 onions (unpeeled), quartered
1 6cm piece of ginger (unpeeled), but into slices
4 tablespoons maple syrup
4 tablespoons runny honey
a big handful of parsley

mix this up in a pot or bucket large enough to hold your turkey and then submerge your turkey into the brine. if it's not enough water to cover it, add some more water, then set it in a cool place for at least 24 hours and up to 2 days before roasting it. mine goes outside in my husband's workshop, which is only heated when he's working out there, so it's cool enough and doesn't take up valuable room in my refrigerator.

when it's time to roast the turkey, you remove it from the brine and wipe it dry at least an hour before you intend to begin roasting it. nigella bastes with a mixture of goose fat and maple syrup. i don't tend to go the trouble to find goose fat (tho' i know it's delicious) so i use butter. melt the butter and maple syrup together and baste the turkey (and stuff it if you're so inclined) before putting it into the oven. baste it periodically while it's roasting. the amount of time it needs depends, of course, on the size of your turkey and in all honesty, i refer to the butterball website to calculate the time my turkey needs. i also use a meat thermometer as our turkeys here in denmark don't come with one of those trusty little pop-up thingies on them to tell us when it's done. remember your turkey will need a bit longer if you stuff it, but i always stuff mine - and i think that stuffing that's been inside the turkey is the best!

i tend to make a very traditional, simple stuffing like my mom makes, with cubed up leftover bread (i'll save it all week in my big mixing bowl, so it's nice and dry by saturday), the giblets (which i cook with an onion and carrot and parsley, reserving the liquid to wet the bread cubes), plenty of sage, salt and pepper. it acquires its flavor from being inside the turkey, so it doesn't need anything fancy.

last year's pie, before i put pretty little cutout pumpkins along the edge to prettify the crust.
and yes, that is a gin & tonic right beside it (hendrick's gin, of course).

i am a bit of a traditionalist where thanksgiving is concerned. i think you have to have mashed potatoes, stuffing, a good gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, a corn dish, cranberries and pumpkin pie. i remember being horrified when someone one year suggested lasagna for thanksgiving, because that just wasn't in my purview, tradition-wise. but i'm not afraid to give these traditional dishes a twist.

this year, epicurious has a pretty nifty little thanksgiving menu generator, where you tell it exactly how traditional you want to be and it pops out a suggested menu. here's the one it gave me, when i told it i wanted traditional with a twist:

of these, i think i'm going to go for the cider glazed roasted root vegetables and the persimmon cranberry sauce. i might make my favorite green bean recipe rather than the traditional green beans with mushroom soup and those french's onions (which i can't get here anyway, tho' danish ristetløg are close) that my mom always makes. i'm also going to find a way to use some beautiful, ruby red pomegranates. and this year, i might make a salad, just to have something lighter on the table to balance all of the heavy things. but i will make a traditional pumpkin pie, i just can't stray from that. and like my mom, i'll undoubtedly make an apple pie too.

* * *
favorite green beans

300g bacon, cut into small pieces and fried 'til crispy
1 medium onion, diced and sautéed
500g  green beans (preferably fresh, but i have been known to use frozen in a pinch), cleaned and cut in half.
100g salty (or smoked) almonds, chopped roughly

sauté your bacon until crispy, remove it and place it on kitchen towel to soak up the extra fat. sauté the onions in the bacon fat. give the green beans 3-5 minutes in salted boiling water, taking care not to let them lose their bright green color. tip the bacon back in with the onions and add the boiled, drained green beans. stir and let the beans cook a bit more. just before serving, add the almonds and stir them through.

i make this recipe quite often. you can actually use asparagus or even brussels sprouts instead of green beans, but that's because bacon makes anything taste great.

* * *

of course, i have to find ways of incorporating local ingredients and the local palate into the menu, in order to recognize the reality of where i live (for example, there's no canned pumpkin here, so i'll cook up a pumpkin for my pie this week). one way in which i'll incorporate a danish twist to the thanksgiving tradition is in making a batch or two of homemade schnapps. you do it by buying a plain, unflavored schnapps (brondums is the kind i'll get) and adding something yummy and letting it soak. i'll make a horseradish one to go with the cranberry one from last year. different ingredients need different amounts of time to soak in the alcohol. and the horseradish is best if it only has 2-3 days in the alcohol before serving. the cranberry, i made last year and now it's a pretty pink and tastes just lightly of cranberries. it'll be perfect for toasts during the meal.

although i love making this meal, i'll undoubtedly get all stressed out around noon on saturday, in a total panic that i'll never have it all ready in time for the guests to arrive at 4 p.m. it doesn't help that danes have an annoying habit of arriving early, rather than fashionably late (what is that?), but it will all come together. i think back to my mom, who i don't recall ever showing any sign of stress about the thanksgiving meal. and i remember once when my uncle showed up with five unexpected extra guests. mom just calmly said, "go down the basement and get another leaf for the table, will you, julie? and set some extra plates." but other than that, she was completely unfazed. it was truly impressive. and i wish i could have a bit more of that. but even still, it's my favorite day of the year and i look forward to sharing it with friends and family - a little bit of the traditions of home, adapted to my country of choice. and everyone thinking, for a few hours, about the things they're thankful for. that's the best part. well, that and the brined turkey.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pancetta: essential ingredient

During the summer, my teenaged daughter decided to become a vegetarian. Added to her other antisocial eating preferences – no butter; no cheese; no food that “touches” – this was really a food prohibition too far. I love to cook, yes, but I only make ONE dinner.

One of my friends joked that I should waft some bacon under her nose. Good advice, actually, as anecdotal evidence suggests that bacon has been the breaking-point of more than one would-be vegetarian. (In the end, a visit to her Texas grandparents vanquished the veggie phase. The tofu stir-fries just couldn’t compete against grilled steak and chicken fajitas.)

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she was sneaking bacon all along . . . it truly is one of THE mouth-watering food smells.

Since I’ve moved to England, where the grocery stores benefit so much from European imports, I’ve become enamored of the Italian version of bacon: pancetta. My grocery store sells it in a two-pack of 75 grams each, and it has become one of my refrigerator staples. I’ve found that it is the onion of the meat world in the sense that it is the starting-point for so many favorite dishes. Instead of eating a large serving of meat, we treat it more like a condiment. A three ounce handful of pancetta adds lots of flavor at a small cost in terms of pounds (money AND calories). The pancetta I use doesn’t yield a lot of run-off fat, unlike regular streaky bacon, but you can easily drain it once it has crisped up.

Possibilities are endless, but here a couple of ideas: both of them meals which I have eaten this week.

When the cupboard is mostly bare, and I don’t have a lot of time, I make a cheap and health(ier) version of spaghetti carbonara. First, I sauté a small diced onion with a 75 gram package of pancetta and a tablespoon of olive oil. When the pancetta is turning brown, and the onions are becoming translucent, I pour in a couple of ounces of white wine – whatever is left in the frig. At this point, I start boiling some spaghetti – which should take approximately 10 minutes. (These quantities are meant for two people – or one extraordinary hungry or greedy person. Multiply as needed.) While the pancetta/onion mixture is bubbling away, and the spaghetti is cooking, I grate a large handful of parmesan cheese. Then, as follows: drain the cooked spaghetti, toss it with the pancetta sauce, mix in the parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. The whole procedure takes about 15 minutes – not bad at all for a bowl of superior comfort food.

If you are avoiding carbohydrates, as I occasionally do, pancetta is the transformative ingredient for a quick spinach salad. For this dish, I like to sauté the pancetta with a small amount of olive oil and a diced purple onion. When the onion is soft and the meat is crisp, I add a good dribble of balsamic vinegar – about a tablespoon, if you want a more precise measurement. Turn the heat down to the lowest simmer, and stir to thicken. This absolutely delicious mixture then becomes a warm dressing for a bed of spinach. Toss while warm, and serve, with a generous grinding of salt and pepper. Sometimes I elaborate on this theme and add all sorts of good things: chopped tomatoes, avocadoes, hard-boiled egg and pine nuts. However, if I am serving this salad as a side dish, I tend to just add the pine nuts.

Milk, bread, eggs and onions may be the classic staples, but pancetta is definitely one of the essential ingredients in my kitchen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ode to an onion

ever since bee and i discussed doing a post on The Essential Cooking Ingredient (look at me, using caps), i have been debating with myself as to what ingredient it should be. cream? bacon? olive oil? lemon? garlic? which one, if it disappeared tomorrow, would i miss the most? and then i realized, it's the onion. even when i'm not inspired to cook, i can dice an onion, throw it in the pan with a bit of olive oil and it will be the start of something. just the reassuring smell of it rising from the pan is sure to spark some sort of inspiration. because an onion is the base of many good dishes...spaghetti, curries, even soups. an onion lends its reliable character to most any savory dish. i have multiple kinds of onions in the house at any given moment - ordinary yellow ones, red ones, shallots, garlic (arguably in the onion family), leeks. onions are so basic and essential that pablo neruda actually wrote an ode to them.

ode to an onion
by pablo neruda

luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
the table
of the poor.
You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

onions are so versatile, i simply couldn't do without them. they're the ultimate savory, but they also work nicely in sweet chutneys and they pair well with apples, complementing the sweet tartness.  here's one of my favorite wintery dishes - æbleflæsk, it's called in danish.

* * *

danish side pork with apples & onions aka æbleflæsk

3 medium onions, peeled and sliced into rounds
3 cooking apples - i use ingrid maries here in denmark, but any good cooking apple is fine - peeled, cored and sliced
50 grams butter
3 T olive oil
800 grams side pork, cut into slices.

lay the side pork out on a baking tray lined with baking paper for easy clean-up and put it in the oven at 175℃/350℉ and bake until it goes crispy. the time this will take depends quite a lot on your pork, but i'd say it generally takes 30-45 minutes and you may need to finish by turning the broiler on 200℃ to crisp it up. i use the hot air setting on my oven and that makes it a bit faster. just keep checking it, it will be brown and crispy when it's done. take it out and transfer it to a plate with paper towels to soak up some of the excess fat.

meanwhile, sauté your onions in the butter and olive oil until they are soft, but not browned. add the apples and continue to sauté. add more butter and another glug of olive oil if it appears to need it. the apples should release their juices, but you may need to add a bit of water. it shouldn't be dry.

when the apples are cooked through, put the apple/onion mixture on a plate and top it with the crispy side pork. serve and enjoy.

EDITED: apparently side pork is a south dakota-ism, so i should probably explain what it is. it's the bacon cut of the hog, but not cured like bacon. and here in denmark, it still has the skin on it, which is great, because then you get crispy pork rinds as part of the deal and the homemade kind are yummy yummy yummy. it comes either in a big lump that you slice yourself or at least here in denmark, you can get big packages of it sliced in rather thick slices.  and by thick i mean 1cm+, so not thin strips like bacon. ask your butcher for some, i'm sure they can help. tho' one time when i asked for a pork roast with the skin still on from the local butcher (who was my cousin, incidentally) back in my hometown, they looked at me like i was speaking a foreign language. which i might well have been doing, since i'd long since shed the fargo accent.

* * *

go forth, use an onion today. you won't regret it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Making mincemeat

Okay, friends:  it is time to start soaking your fruit.

I know that we've just packed away the Halloween costumes, and that many of you are thinking in terms of Thanksgiving menus, but it is only six weeks until Christmas . . . and making your own mincemeat is a really satisfying (even relaxing!) way to prepare for the holiday of all holidays.  It is easy, too; all you need is a big pot and a wooden spoon.

Mince pies are ubiquitous in England during the Christmas season. So much so, in fact, that the original delicacy is in danger of being debased.  People get so used to the cheap boxes of pre-made mince pies that they forget how utterly delicious the homemade version is by comparison.  When done right, commonplace things are ambrosial.

There is something about a homemade mince pie, with its meltingly soft pastry and mouthful of rich fruit, that makes me think of all of the coziest Christmas associations:  snow on the outside when you are on the inside, roaring fires, favorite carols, candles in the window, dark nights, a glittering tree, visiting loved ones. 
I do realize that not everyone likes dried fruit, or the Christmasy treats made with them.  (I think that I used to be one of these people, actually, but no longer!)  I grew up with baking traditions that revolved around cookies and candy, but in England you've got the holy trinity of dried fruit:  Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies.  Although I haven't abandoned the sugar cookies, the gingerbread men, the toffee or the peanut brittle from my childhood, all of these years in England have added their own cultural accretions.  Really, I couldn't contemplate Christmas without mince pies.

A few years ago I started making my own mincemeat -- a misnomer, really, as no one puts meat into their mixture these days.  Every year I try a new recipe, and I've had good results with both suet and butter.  I've added apricots, candied ginger and pear in place of the usual apple, but this year I was in the mood for something more classic. This recipe comes from Mary Berry's Christmas Collection.  (Was there ever a better name for a Christmas cookery writer?)  It is a very traditional recipe -- and I'm going to give it to you straight, just in case there are some mince pie neophytes out there who want to give it a go. 

Having said that, I made several alterations to this blueprint:  namely, I left out the apple, substituted pecans for the almonds, slightly reduced the mixed peel, and doubled the quantities of everything.  I made one batch with rum, and one with sherry.  I really fancy the idea of mixing in the rum-soaked fruit to some vanilla ice cream and making a Christmas version of one of my favorites:  rum-and-raisin ice cream.

I had planned on giving some of the jars as gifts, but I can't promise that I will follow through.  Last year, I had several jars from the previous year's canning sessions.  I gave one to a friend, and when I tasted how absolutely delicious this vintage blend was I was sadly tempted to ask for it back! 

We should probably make mincemeat in July, but who wants to think of Christmas then?  You need a cold, dank November day to really get into the spirit of boozy soaked fruit.

Special mincemeat

175g (6 oz) currants
175g (6 oz) raisins
175g (6 oz) sultanas
175g (6 oz) dried cranberries
100g (4 oz) mixed peel
1 small cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
125g (4 oz) butter, cut into small pieces* (you could also use the traditional suet here)
50g (2 oz) whole blanched almonds, roughly chopped
225g (8 oz) light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
200ml (7 fl oz) brandy, rum or sherry


Measure all of the ingredients into a large saucepan -- EXCEPT for the alcohol.
Heat gently until the butter has all melted, and then simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.  Stir occasionally to evenly distribute all of the ingredients.

Allow the mixture to cool completely, and then stir in the alcohol of your choice.

Sterilize your canning jars -- I tend to do this in the dishwasher, and then dry them out well in a low oven.  Spoon the cool mixture into the jars and seal tightly.  The longer you leave them, the better.
If stored in a cool place, they should last well for months . . . and maybe even until next Christmas!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Batterie de Cuisine

In my sixteen years of married life, I’ve inhabited twelve different kitchens. I’ve occasionally had more than enough storage space, but more typically, I’ve not had nearly enough counter top area, shelving, and drawer space for my needs. “Need,” of course, being an operatively subjective word.

One of my favorite cookbooks, Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, has a charming little essay called The Low Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine. But as much as I enjoy reading about Laurie’s minimalist ways, I really cannot share them. (Perhaps it is because Laurie’s kitchens were all in New York City, while mine have largely been in Texas?) Unlike Laurie, I have great admiration for the garlic press – and I wouldn’t dream of giving up my massive food processor for a knuckle-shredding grater. I share Laurie’s fondness for wooden spoons and mixing bowls, but I really do not think they substitute for a mixer; nor do I think that a hand-held mixer substitutes for a standing Kitchen-Aid. (Mind you, a hand-held mixer is useful for making seven-minute frosting over the double-boiler; it’s probably best to have both.) Even minimalists will admit that there are “special interests that must be catered to.” Laurie requires a chicken fryer in her kitchen; I make do without one. However, the space that I have saved by not having a chicken fryer has been more than filled by the many, many specialist baking tins that I require. Mini muffin pans. Extra-large tart cases. Loaf tins of every size. A Madeleine tin. A cake pan in the shape of a present.

My current kitchen, which is the old-fashioned galley style, falls much closer to the “not nearly enough storage space” side of the spectrum. When we last moved, from Houston to England, the packers forgot to pack the shelves under the island – where I kept many items of “occasional” use. I can’t remember the exact contents now, but items like the heart-shaped Belgian waffle machine and the large steel fondue set were housed down there. I wonder if there was some larger intelligence at work, and not just negligence, because we would have never fit all of the stuff in this much smaller kitchen. As it is, I’m using half of the pantry for my baking equipment, every shelf is precariously balanced, and my Le Creuset has to jostle alongside the breakfast cereal. In the past year, and despite space restrictions, I’ve acquired a cast iron skillet, a food mill and a stackable steamer. When my mother gives the girls that special “edge” pan for banana bread something really will have to go. Truly, my shelves are at breaking point; a few of the doors won’t even close completely.

Despite my fondness for kitchen stuff, I will happily admit that some pieces of equipment earn their keep – while others are dodgier lodgers. Leaving aside saucepans and frying pans, I’ve nominated four hard-working stars of my kitchen. I couldn’t be without them; if you don’t have them, I would encourage you to add them to your Christmas list.

The KitchenAid Mixer. When I went to college, my mother gave me her old KitchenAid --- which had already done at least a decade of hard labor in her kitchen. I used it, continuously, for another decade . . . only passing it on to a friend when my mother bought me a new one. This is my favorite piece of machinery, hands-down. Worth every penny and deserving its space on my (limited) countertop.

Cookie sheets and baking liners. I have made hundreds of cookies and biscuits on these. Tonight, I made homemade pizza on them. When it comes to baking equipment, good quality will really make a difference. Silpat (silicone) liners are one of the great inventions of the 20th century as far as I’m concerned.

Microplane. (another gift from my mother) These are brilliant for zesting lemons and grating parmesan cheese. The very best tool for the job. Since I use those two ingredients to add flavor to all sorts of dishes, I use my Microplane nearly every day.

Wooden spoons/Silicone spatulas. You cannot have too many of these. I keep them in a jar by the stovetop and they get used constantly

Of course, this kind of list begs the question: What kitchen equipment do you value the most?

My husband, who does not cook, requires three pieces of equipment: a microwave, a toaster and an espresso machine. (It is not a coincidence that all of these are machines.) Ironically, if given the chance, I would do away with all of them. If it was up to me, only the electric kettle and my beloved KitchenAid would be taking up space on my countertops. But life in the kitchen, as in life in general, requires compromises.

For instance, I would like to have an island. I would like to have an Aga. I would especially like to have a big red Smeg refrigerator like the one in Julochka’s kitchen. Sadly, I will not be getting any of these things. Instead, I have a tiny refrigerator which is hidden behind a door front. Although I’ve made room for the over-sized spaghetti pot in this small kitchen, I still don’t have a space for my collection of refrigerator magnets!

Can you guess where the dishwasher and refrigerator are hiding?

Monday, November 9, 2009

where i cook: a kitchen in denmark

a little over a year ago, this was how my kitchen looked. you'll notice the lack of kitcheny bits one normally expects - sink, stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, countertops (i could go on).  it was a long spring and summer, i can tell you. i've already mentioned before that i did a lot of cooking outside on an old stove we picked up from an antique dealer. we also ate quite a lot of kebabs and pizza. it wasn't much fun and it got me dreaming about the kitchen appliances i would have when the kitchen once again was back to normal.

things slowly moved towards normalcy. we actually moved the kitchen from one side of the room to the other, so pipes and drains had to be changed. at one point there was a giant hole dug under the stairs. i was rather alarmed one especially stressful day that it appeared that my chopped up body might fit very nicely into it, but thankfully that feeling passed. oak flooring was laid. the sink was moved and functioning again. the walls repaired and prepared for a fresh coat of paint.

and then those appliances we had ordered were delivered. that was a truly joyous day. especially when the red retro smeg refrigerator was in place. and the dishwasher (it's a miele, because we love that top silverware drawer, so much better for the silverware than those baskets). so we were using free containers that came with the cat food as our trash cans, big deal, there was counter space and a dishwasher and a cheery tile backsplash.

and although the layout may look a bit strange, with the stove at the end of the big island, which is made out of a wonderful 21-drawer antique counter from an old village shop on which we put an oak countertop, it actually functions really well. there's a deep window sill right behind where i keep the olive oil and other cooking essentials right at hand and i tend to put a tray on some of the unused burners for a spoon rest while i'm cooking. it works really well, as i don't often use all six burners at once. the stove is smeg, like the refrigerator, and has two ovens. i wanted a stove that could handle thanksgiving and i'll find out this year if it can, as we're hosting a large thanksgiving feast.

another of the items i considered essential was a kitchenaid mixer (i had an ugly, tho' heavy-duty electrolux one previously). and blender. and food processor. we husband drew the line at the espresso machine (with me kicking and screaming about that one), so we still have to go out for lattes or make them the old-fashioned way with a bodum stovetop frother. the food processor doesn't show in this picture, as i keep it in the pantry when i'm not using it. mostly because it's black. they didn't have a red one in stock and i couldn't wait, so i settled for black (i also got a discount on the display model, so call me cheap). i use the food processor less often than i use the mixer, tho' it comes out at least once or twice a week, as does the blender (which lives on top of the fridge).

and this is pretty much how it looks today. i'll admit i was resistant to having the big-ass t.v. in the room, but it has turned out to be quite ok. it means that sabin can be there, playing the Wii while i'm cooking and we can interact and spend time together that we might not otherwise spend if she had to play in another room. the kitchenaid mixer is something that i use nearly every day, which is why it gets a place of honor on the counter at all times. down in the the far bottom drawer you'll find the toaster. it's a longstanding tradition in husband's family to keep the toaster in a drawer, so that's where ours is. we just leave the drawer open while it's toasting.

the lamp you can see above the stove is actually an ingenious fan - one that doesn't need a bunch of ugly ductwork. you just regularly send the filters through the dishwasher (it blinks to tell you when) and it absorbs cooking odors and grease. totally brilliant design from elica.

one thing that is, for some (e.g. my mother), curiously absent from my kitchen, is a microwave. i haven't had one in over a decade and there hasn't been a single, solitary time that i've missed it. if your cup of coffee or tea has gone cold, make yourself a new one for heaven's sake, it'll taste better anyway! we even managed to relearn how to make popcorn on the stovetop and so we never suffer without a microwave.

we love the drawer unit that makes up the island. it's big enough that you can have people working on both sides, especially when it's time to make lots of cut-out cookies. while i'm preparing dinner, the guests can sit on the other side and talk to me while they sip a cocktail. it makes it a very social space, which is how the kitchen should be. it's really the center of our home. and although the house is for sale, we will try to recreate such a space in whatever new house we move to.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bonfire Night Chili

Tonight, like most people in the UK, we will be celebrating “Bonfire Night.” For the uninitiated: On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were foiled in their dastardly plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament. For many years, effigies of Guy Fawkes were burned on November 5; but these days, it’s mostly an excuse for fireworks and bonfires – and that kind of activity is easier to carry out over the weekend. My daughter’s school always holds an elaborate Bonfire Night, which includes a torch-lit procession down to the waiting bonfire. Like all activities that take place in the dark, the occasion has a slightly transgressive quality to it. The teenagers tend to slope off to do goodness knows what, while everyone ooos and ahs over the bursts of fireworks in the inky dark sky.

I attended my first Bonfire Night more than a decade ago, and my chief memories of that night are suffused in smoke and the cold foggy damp that rises up from the forest at night. I remember eating tinned tomato soup, followed by burnt sausages, in a thin drizzle. I found it all rather miserable.

For me, the key to enjoying Bonfire Night is to dress extremely warmly, and to forget the barbeque and eat inside. (Frankly, English barbeques are dubious enough in July; never mind November.) The traditional menu is sausages and “jacket” (baked) potatoes, but because the occasion requires something especially warming, I am going with chili – Texas-style. I will still make the jacket potatoes, but I will load them up with chili – with lots of cheddar cheese and sour cream and tortilla chips on the side.

In Texas, where I'm from, chili is a way of life. The Chili Cook-Off is a popular social activity, and there is almost no limit to what you can put in that stew pot. The key ingredients, though, are some kind of beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes and chili powder. Many Texans think that you must never, ever put beans in chili; but I like the flavor and texture they give. They make a healthier chili, too, and break up all of that meat. I’ve never found The Ultimate chili, but I think that this recipe is a pretty good starting place for our family’s tastes. Even if you aren’t celebrating Bonfire Night, the beginning of November is always the tipping point for colder, more wintry weather. This month can feel dark and bleak, and there is nothing like a bowl of hot steaming chili to warm up the insides.

Congressional Chili
(adapted from the Peace Meals, the Houston Junior League cookbook)

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 red peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, pressed
2 ½ pounds ground beef
16 ounces tomato sauce
3 tablespoons prepared red mole
3 tablespoons chili powder
24 ounces water
32 ounces canned red kidney beans
For garnishes: shredded cheddar cheese and diced onions and sour cream

Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent and the peppers begin to soften. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Brown the beef in a separate skillet; draining off any excess fat. Add half of the onion mixture to the meat and reserve the rest for later. Stir in the tomato sauce, mole, chili powder and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust the seasonings for taste.* Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the beans and remaining half of the onion-pepper mixture. Cook for 15 minutes more, then serve – with desired garnishes.

*I thought about calling this “blueprint chili,” because in my mind chili is always more of a process than an exact specification. This is particularly true in England, where there are a variety of chilis/chiles (and chili powder), but not necessarily the same ones that you are going to find in Texas. Also, unless you have access to some specialty store, it is doubtful that you will be able to find any red mole sauce. I Googled red mole, but quickly rejected the idea of making it from scratch when I saw the long list of ingredients and the repeated words: roasting and pounding. The key thing about mole is that it includes good quality dark chocolate; so that is what I retained from the mole concept. I added a cocoa bean/chili blend spice and also about 4 ounces of 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate. This gave the chili a lovely rich dark color and a slightly silky quality: I highly recommend using it. I also added too much fiery chili powder, and then had to compensate with more tomato sauce and some beef broth. So really, my advice would be to go easy on the spices at first, and to keep tasting until you get a concoction that will please your family. My family isn’t fond of tongue-burning chili, so I aim to get something with a slight bite.

Speaking of bite, I’ve made chocolate spider cupcakes for dessert. Okay, they are usually something I make for a Halloween treat . . . but I think that they work well for Bonfire Night, too. When those wood piles get disturbed tonight, the spiders will be on the prowl!

I have a family of chocoholics coming for dinner, so I’ve tried out the rich cupcakes and icing from the new Primrose Bakery cookbook. The spider idea comes from a Ladies Home Journal article from 1997. You use dark chocolate peppermint creams for the spider’s body and melted white and dark chocolate for the web, eyes and legs. Just melt a few ounces of chocolate in a small Ziploc bag in the microwave – 30 seconds will do it. Snip off the tiniest corner from one end of the bag, and use it like an icing bag.

Chocolate in the chili, chocolate in the dessert . . . a week of Halloween candy still hasn't put us off!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

favorite cookbook: madhur jaffrey's ultimate curry bible

a few years ago in mumbai on a very quick shopping trip that brought new meaning to the term power shop with the most fantastic bargainer i've ever had the privilege to witness, i acquired an authentic indian spice tin. at the moment, it contains coriander seeds, golden mustard seeds, black mustard seeds, dried ginger, mixed peppercorns and cumin seeds. the fragrance when i lift the lid to transfer small spoonfuls (spoonsful?) of spices to my mortar & pestle transports me to exotic lands - not only india, but mexico, thailand, singapore and london. yes, london, because london is the ultimate place to eat a curry isn't it?

and when it's time to make a curry, i call both on notes that i made years ago in arizona during the only real cooking lessons i've ever had (with a wonderful indian friend) and on madhur jaffrey's ultimate curry bible. curries are warming and comforting and transcendent. yes, transcendent - with the heavenly, exotic smell of a curry filling my kitchen, i feel lifted above the mundane everyday.

if you've got staples in your cupboard - rice, chick peas or lentils, coconut milk, onions, and the spices in my spice tin, plus turmeric and a head of cauliflower and a tomato or two in your crisper, you can have a curry in the same time it takes you to make a boring old everyday meatloaf. and you don't even need meat, tho' of course you can use it if you want to. but i find myself turning to curries when i want to eat less meat, they seem to me to make vegetarian food more exciting.

madhur jaffrey, who was a brit TV cook before it became trendy to be one, presents curries from the entire spectrum - traditional curry places like india, singapore, malaysia, indonesia, thailand, but also south africa, kenya, great britain, trinidad, guyana, japan and the US and lots of places in between. there are some that will take your head off and ones that will soothe your soul. but they will all wake up your palate and and a put a bit more excitement in your everyday. if you love curries, or even just reading about curries and their evolution and history, this is the one cookbook you need.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Bread

thanks to my favorite jamie oliver - happy days with the naked chef - i am mildly famous in our social circle for my stuffed bread. i make it as a little something to serve with drinks when people arrive whenever we have a large gathering and occasionally when it's a smaller gathering, mostly because i'm absolute rubbish at having the real meal ready even close to on time (i like to think of it as a signature). jamie uses his basic bread recipe and stuffs it full of parma ham, cheese, egg and basil. naturally, i have strayed from his original, making some mistakes along the way (using my swedish sister-in-law's bread recipe, which just really didn't enfold the ingredients as it should have, but is otherwise a brilliant bread recipe). however, i think at last, i have perfected it.

fabulous eep tea towel by heather moore (skinny laminx)

i have a basic bread recipe that i printed back in 1997. although it's spotted with dots of olive oil and the ink is blurred, it says that it belongs to emeril lagasse and it must have been from the foodnetwork website. i try other bread recipes but have to admit that i go back to this one again and again.

basic bread

50 grams fresh yeast (or 1 envelope dry yeast)
2 T olive oil
2 T sugar
2 C warm water
2 T sea salt
6 C organic wheat flour

mix the yeast, olive oil, sugar and water in the bowl of your mixer with the dough hook attached. mix to combine and allow it to begin to froth, activating the yeast. add the flour and sea salt a bit at a time, until it's all combined, continue to mix on the dough hook until it's well-kneaded. i do this entirely with the mixer, because i'm always making this bread in the midst of half a dozen other preparations. although this robs me of the pleasure of the contact with the dough, the kitchenaid does it brilliantly and frees me to get lots of other things done in the meantime.  when the dough seems elastic and is gathered into a tight ball, transfer it to a greased bowl and cover with a tea towel to rise. if you have a warm room or a fireplace, it only needs about an hour to double in size, especially if you use a block of fresh yeast (i've never seen that in the US, so our american friends may have trouble finding it and dry yeast works just fine).

while your dough is rising, prepare the following:

stuffing (mine varies every time, this reflects the pictures)

1 jar pesto (i used artichoke this time, but use whatever you have on hand)
1 package bacon, fried 'til crispy
2 C hard cheeses, grated (i used goat gouda, sage gouda and prima donna)
handful of thyme
handful of sage
3 eggs, beaten

when the dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured board, fold it over and knead it, then roll it out into a  8-10" wide length of dough that's about 24"-30" long. spread the pesto down the center of the dough, then add the bacon, herbs, cheese. make a little trough down the center of the cheese and add the beaten eggs in the trough, to hold them. then fold the edges over and pinch them together. move it to a baking tray covered with baking paper, making it a circle by pinching the dough together. cover it with a tea towl and allow it to rise for an hour (i've skipped this when in a hurry and it's actually been fine). bake for 40+ minutes at 175℃/350℉. you can tell it's done by knocking gently on it, it just sounds crispy and done (try it you'll know what i mean).

i try to serve it still warm and it warms up nicely again in the oven, should it cool off. you can actually stuff it with whatever you have in your fridge...a jar of basil pesto or a fresh pesto you make yourself (i do that in the summer when i have the basil at hand), artichokes, olives, parma ham, chorizo, a mushroom mixture, boiled eggs (jamie's recipe calls for boiled eggs), leftover roast chicken, whatever cheese you have at hand. as for the dough, you can also mix spelt flour or another whole wheat flour with the regular flour, for a more dense texture, but i have to admit that i prefer it with ordinary organic white flour. but pretty much regardless of what i've stuffed this bread with, it's a big hit whenever you assemble a group of people.

* * *

quick update on the halloween party, because you've got to see the cupcakes:

and my best ever carved pumpkin:

a very grand time was had by all.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

For the morning after: Coffee Cake

This post-Halloween morning, I awoke to rain pounding against the windows. I made my way through a darkened house littered with feathers, candy wrappers, plastic bones and the black and red remnants of Halloween costumes. The mess can wait, though. First things first: to fill the kettle and turn on the oven. By the time I get out of the shower, the sweet smell of warm cinnamon will be filling the house.

If I were alone, I could take a cup of tea to bed and read/rest off the Saturday night excesses; but I’m not alone. Massed between sofa cushions and blankets is a jumble of pre-teen bodies.  They are sleeping on my living room floor – and all of them will need to be fed again, despite feasting late into the night.

We have weekend guests quite a lot, at least once a month, and Sunday mornings always pose a bit of a problem for me. I want to give my guests something special, but I’m not much of a morning person. Happily, I’ve discovered a good trick for bathrobe entertaining: Overnight Coffee Cake. Believe me, it’s just what you need for the upcoming months of holiday entertaining.

You can make it the night before – quickly, easily and with compromised faculties – and then just pop it in the refrigerator. After some time in the oven, simultaneously warming and perfuming your kitchen, this delicious cake will fill the gap between the first cup of coffee and the more laborious effort of producing bacon and eggs.

It will serve a good many people, but if you leave it on the counter – for nibblers – it will slowly and surely disappear. It is sweetly simple, and I’ve fed it to the pickiest eaters with great success. Yes, early risers can make do with toast or cold cereal; but really, this is so much better.

Overnight Coffee Cake

(adapted from a recipe that came from the Inn on the Creek,
a now-defunct B&B in Salado, Texas)

6 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces sugar
2 large eggs
8 ounces sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 cups flour (approximately 12 ounces if weighed instead of measured)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

6 ounces brown sugar
4 ounces pecans, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, sour cream and vanilla and mix until smooth. Add all of the dry ingredients and mix together, gently, until thoroughly incorporated.

Spoon into a greased 13x9 glass or ceramic baking pan.

Combine the ingredients for the topping, and spread evenly over the batter. Then cover your pan with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, simply remove the cover and bake in a preheated medium oven (350F/175 C) for 45 minutes.

Although I’ve never done so, the original recipe suggests that you can also add fresh fruit to the topping. I’m sure that you could also vary the spices and nuts with great success. It is a sturdy, moist, beautifully adaptable cake:   perfect for those who might be feeling slightly under-the-weather on a post-holiday morning.  And much, much better for you than a handful of Halloween candy.


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